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Jackie-O Motherfucker - Ballads of the Revolution

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Artist: Jackie-O Motherfucker

Album: Ballads of the Revolution

Label: Fire

Review date: Aug. 27, 2009

Jackie-O Motherfucker is, at this point, one of life’s little inevitabilities. We can just kind of assume that Tom Greenwood, with a revolving cast of wayfarers who do their time with him in between more refined/less catchall projects (see Adam Forkner and Honey Owens, for two), will continue to follow some erratic astral muse, and that we’ll never go for too long without a new slab of exemplary industrio-rural drone to chew on, some more infallible, sun-deprived grooves for our campfires in outer space. No good reason to want it any other way.

Inevitability doesn’t mean JOMF can’t still pose questions, though, and the question asked by Ballads of the Revolution is whether a freewheeling act like this one has any use for the model of the song. If 2005’s sweetly moody Flags of the Sacred Harp answered more or less in the affirmative, thanks largely to Owens’s ideally off-center lilt, this album seems to take the opposing side. The band’s slow-building jams have historically proven their purpose in the execution, 10 minutes or so into the sound-gnarl, but these six songs are the opposite: they sound like they were saddled from the outset with something to prove about immediacy, and given no further instructions. Even the most splayed-out jams, “Skylight” and “The Cryin’ Sea,” move like they have somewhere to be – but the spirit in which they take shape internally hasn’t gotten any more dynamic. The stopping points are just a little more arbitrary, a little more enforced.

What’s at least good about those two numbers is that they de-center Greenwood’s vocals, which even on the folk ballad-reworking “Nightingale” come off more listless than deep. No such luck on the abstruse “Dark Falcons,” supposedly a reworking of a Lucky Dragons song with some affectless murmuring from Owens, or on “The Corner,” a whispery Slint song drained of everything but a few creepy noises. Both clock in under six minutes; it feels almost like a matter of principle that, given more time to spread out, they wouldn’t so much find their grooves as outstay their welcomes.

And yet the unexpected highlight here is the finale, “A Mania,” which, barring some wah-wah noodling right out of a mid-1990s Phish single, is a perfectly dignified specimen of lonely, off-key Americana. No need to toss in the kitchen sink, no need to stretch out to 16 minutes, just a simple and direct sure-we-can-write-a-proper-song success. It doesn’t quite supply the missing purpose of the rest of the album, but it proves that this band can slip the predictable sometimes, when the circumstances are right. For the rest of Ballads Greenwood and company mostly show their limits by pushing them a bit, which is still laudable and even vaguely comforting.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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